What Is a Sneaker

The word "sneaker" was a marketing term coined in the United States many years after the actual shoe construction was created. "Sneaker" is one of many names given to a shoe that consists of a canvas upper attached to a vulcanized rubber outsole. A shoe made any differently (e.g., a shoe with a foam midsole and a stability shank) is not technically a sneaker.

The first shoes constructed with canvas uppers and vulcanized rubber outsoles were called "Sand Shoes." These shoes were an evolution of a former sand shoe design that had a cotton canvas upper and outsole made from flat leather or jute rope. In the 1830s an English company called Liverpool Rubber evolved the original sand shoe, by bonding canvas to rubber, making the outsole more durable. The name "sand shoe" came from the fact that they were worn on the beach, by the Victorian middle class (Kippen 2004). Sand shoes were revolutionary as they replaced heavy and more expensive leather-work boots. Around the 1860s, a croquet shoe was created that had a rubber outsole with a canvas upper fastened with cotton laces. Sand shoes were different than the croquet shoe as they had a T-strap upper construction fastened with a metal buckle. Sand shoes were also the basis for traditional English school sandals, sometimes called "Sandies" (Wagner 1999).

In the 1870s, a more robust sand shoe was created; it was called a "Plimsoll" (also spelled Plimsol or Plim-sole). The name came from Samuel Plimsoll (1824-1898), a British merchant and shipping reformer who designated the "Plimsoll Mark"—a mark on the hull of cargo ships that designated the waterline when it was at full capacity (Britannica Student Encyclopedia 2004). The term Plimsoll was adopted by the shoe industry because the point where the canvas upper and vulcanized rubber outsole bonded together looked similar to a ship's Plimsoll line. This line aesthetically made the shoe look more expensive than previous models and became adopted by all social classes for a variety of athletic activities.

Around the same time the Plimsoll was popular in England, the term "sneaker" was coined in the United States. There are several cited origins and dates of the term. Some say the word is merely an Americanism, made from the word "sneak" (1870), because the shoe was noiseless (Coye 1986, pp. 366-369). There is also a reference that the noise-less rubber shoes were preferred by "sneak thieves" (1891) hence the name sneakers (Van-derbuilt 1998, p. 9). There is even a source that mentions the shoe got its name from "sneaky" (1895) baseball players who liked stealing bases in them (Hendrickson 2000). Many sources reference Henry Nelson McKinney (1917), an advertising agent for N. W. Ayer & Son. He came up with the name "sneaker," because the rubber outsole allowed the shoe to be quiet or "sneaky" (Bellis 2004)

No matter how the name was born, shoes with a canvas upper and a vulcanized rubber outsole evolved into many forms. These evolutions allowed people to enhance their athletic skills and provided an aesthetic opportunity for casual shoe design. In the 1880s, vulcanized rubber was added to the toe box to stop the big toenail from breaking through the canvas. It also provided abrasion resistance in sports where the forefoot was dragged to provide balance (e.g., tennis). Functional outsole patterns (e.g., herringbone) were also created to add traction, facilitate player movements, and cushion the load when jumping. Similar types of shoes became useful for sailing and yachting, since they provided traction on the wet deck. The military also used them, and had them colored according to rank. Schools recommended them to students for gym class. Athletes wore them at the first modern Olympics in Paris (1900), and Robert Falcon Scott wore them on his Antarctic expedition (1901-1904) (Kippen 2004).

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